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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Downsizing, review: Mini We

Downsizing, review: Mini We

Once in a while, a movie comes along that renews our faith in creative writing and the ability of cinema to rise above its own decadence. Maybe it took a dozen ‘shrink’, ‘little’ and ‘antman’ films, from 1957 to 2015, to inspire the writers of Downsizing, the title itself a pun, but the resulting effort has a fresh new feel about it. After setting up a very interesting premise and some smooth as silk spellbinding VFX, the film then changes course, even before the midway point, running an uneven path, up to its 135 minutes finishing point. Size does matter, and so does length. I expected more and better transition points from the film, which, nevertheless, remains interesting, after downsized expectations.

After decades of research and experiments, Norwegian scientists (Dr. Asbjørnsen and Dr. Jacobsen), working under a grant from a family that has guilt pangs about selling mustard gas in World War I, discover how to shrink humans to a mere five inches height. They advance a theory about ‘downsizing’ as a solution to over-population. Following their revelations at a scientists’ convention in Turkey, the idea begins to catch on, and reaches the USA too. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), who live in Omaha, have been struggling with their lives and are unable to buy a house, having other mortgages piled up already. They decide to get small and move to a new downsized community, called Leisureland--a choice that will make everything so much cheaper, including a house, but will also trigger life-changing adventures.

Paul awakens from the treatment only to get a phone call from his wife, who tells him that she has decided to opt out at the eleventh hour, after they shaved her head and her eyebrows. A divorce follows. Paul is now all alone, but manages to quietly fit-in. A practicing Occupational (Physio) Therapist, he is not allowed to continue his profession since his licence has lapsed, so he settles for a boring tele-marketing job for Land’s End. He is wondering what to do with his life and feels that the downsizing was a mistake. But then he meets his neighbour, Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), who lives just above, and is an incurable party-maniac.

At one of Dusan’s parties, he also meets Joris Konrad (Udo Kier) and a bunch of druggies. Dusan smuggles luxury goods to down-sized communities across the globe and Joris owns the yacht that helps ferry the stuff. And, most importantly, he befriends an impoverished activist from Vietnam, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), who is the only survival of an illegal immigration expedition into the US in which 13 others died, and now runs a house-cleaning service. Ngoc organised protests, till she and her sister were arrested and jailed. Her sister died in prison, while she was downsized as a punishment. Paul is going to make some discoveries about life and about himself, thanks to Ngoc.

Established writer-director duo Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, partners in the Santa Monica-based Ad Hominem Enterprises, have done six films together: Citizen Ruth, Election, Jurassic Park III (with Peter Buchman), About Schmidt, Sideways, and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (with Barry Fanaro and Lew Gallo). Downsizing is very much a writer’s/VFX department’s film, and scores high on both counts. Discrimination between haves and have-nots, little details like names of people and countries and their pronunciations, the highly believable down-sized settlements, irksome details like the shaving of all body hair and removal of all dental fillings and dentures for the ‘operation’, (make you cringe sometimes, but integral to the narrative), a downsizing process gone wrong resulting in death confined to a piece of narrative dialogue, the idea of incorporating Serbia, Vietnam, Turkey and Norway as reference points, with the almost in your face revelation early in the film that the research to miniaturise mankind was funded by a family that made war millions (Nobel of Sweden, Norway’s neighbour, had set-up a similar fund, after wars fought in the 19th century).

As director, Payne (Sideways, The Descendents, Nebraska) goes with the inherent goodness of his confused protagonist. He later introduces Dusan, indulgently, until you find this move juxtaposed against the entry of no-nonsense, heart-of-gold, Ngoc. Absolute luxury to abject poverty, party drugs at Dusan’s pad to pain-killers for a Hispanic woman dying of cancer, there are sharp contrasts galore. Of course, the take-away scene is the piece of dialogue between Paul and Ngoc, where she unleashes a no-holds barred barrage that holds a mirror to contemporary American society, with such cold-blooded élan.

Besides his bourne supremacy in acting, Matt Damon is oceans of talent as a writer too. One can expect him to see merit in a script, and make educated judgements. Here, the fact that he throws no punches, shouts in only one scene, has his head and eyebrows shaved, is a mere five inches tall for most of the film, cleans houses and carries food for the destitute, and falls on love with a one-legged Vietnamese woman, all offer his the chance to go far away from his Bourne Identity. He does acquit himself well. Christoph Waltz looks too old for a party-boy. Some of his dialogue is unclear and I even though he was speaking French. How different is a Serbian accent from a French one, I cannot tell. His words of wit and street-smart wisdom, delivered while his face goes from deadpan to weather-beaten, replete with the trade-mark half sneer, still draw chuckles.

Now let’s meet somebody called Hong Chau. She is Vietnamese, comes from a generation called boat-people because they had to wander in boats before they found refuge from the war, was born in Thailand, became a film student in the USA, worked in American TV, and did a film called Inherent Vice, before Downsizing came along. And for Downsizing, at last count, she had four nominations as Best Supporting Female actor, all well-deserved. Kristen Wiig (Despicable Me, Ghostbusters, Mother!) appears confused in her early scenes, till you discover that her character was just undecided and unprepared. These emotions are well-carried.

Charming Jason Sudeikis as Dave Johnson, an old high school friend of Paul and Audrey, has a brief role, with some sincere inter-action between the two. Udo Kier as Joris Konrad, an aging partyboy and Dusan's companion, is passable, with unclear, mumbling dialogue delivery. Rolf Lassgård as Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen as inventor of the downsizing procedure and Søren Pilmark as Dr. Andreas Jacobsen, his partner, look their parts. Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern put in cameos as Jeff and Laura Lonowski, miniaturised sales representatives for Leisureland.

I found two points of conflict that might have worked against the film. Firstly, how to introduce and sustain Part II, the post divorce segment, and secondly, what genre to paint the picture in: sci-fi or comedy or both. Getting in a party-animal neighbour, who is also a smuggler, and the Vietnamese girl, who underwent downsizing as a punishment, are somewhat clumsy ploys. I guess since it is a highly political film with some hard-hitting realities, the all-out comedy slot was eschewed. Elements of comedy, including some punchy one-liners, remain. Incidentally, do you recall a film in which the hero wakes up in after an experiment, and the first thing he does is check whether his manhood is intact? Ditto here. Now, why is it not pure sci-fi? Maybe because there is a touching humanitarian story being told, parallel to the political scenario, and an over-kill of sci-fi would detract. While underplaying the sci-fi angle, the makers have not explained several phenomena that needed detailing, in the five-inch milieu. Verdict: it is both sci-fi and comedy and political too.

Reading on the web, I find the duration specified as 135 minutes, while the Indian certificate said 132 mins. I can guess where the balance three minutes went. You can pixelise a row of nude bodies with their manhood showing. However, it would make no sense to pixelise moments of germane love-making. So, don’t pixelise, just excise.

Lastly, Downsizing is hardly an apt title for a film of this nature. Companies cutting staff and operations to reduce running costs is one thing. Scientists contracting 3% of the world’s population to a cute new species of men women and children, all just 5” tall, that could be called ‘Mini We’, is a different ball-name altogether.

Rating: ***



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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